The History of Governors Island, New York
Almost everything you see in New York City is filled with a rich history and background that gives the city that magical quality we cherish. Founded by the Dutch as New Amsterdam, New York City was given its current name in the mid-17th century, and its legacy has only continued to grow throughout the decades.
Every part of Manhattan has a story, even the small islands that sit around it. Governors Island — most known for unparalleled views of the city and art installations — is just one of many New York neighborhoods with untold stories to uncover. The more we learn about our beautiful city, the more we can appreciate the little things we often take for granted.
Below, you will find all the information you need on the history of Governors Island and tips for a memorable visit.
Governors Island in the 17th Century
Unknown to many, the Dutch West India Company first settled on this small, 70-acre island just south of Manhattan before crossing the rest of the water. While they moved into Manhattan proper within the year, the small island still remained in the possession of the Dutch government.
In the late 17th century, the British took over New Amsterdam and renamed it New York City. Eventually, they named the small island first settled by the Dutch “Governors Island” with the purpose of serving as an accommodation for His Majesty’s Governors.
Governors Island in the 18th Century
Just before the American Revolution in 1750, Governors Island officially became part of New York City. During the American Revolution, however, the British Army overpowered George Washington and his troops, causing American forces to retreat from Long Island and Governors Island. New York City and Governors Island were occupied by the British for the rest of the American Revolution and used as their North American military headquarters.
After the Revolutionary War was over, the state of New York reclaimed ownership of all lands owned by the British, which included Governors Island. In the late 18th century, around 1794, the country was in the process of establishing a system of coastal defenses, and they turned to Governors Island for construction. They built a fort in the center of the island and transferred the property of the Island to the U.S. government for military use in 1800.
Governors Island in the 19th Century
The fort built in the center of the island was named Fort Jay, and in the early 19th century, two more forts were constructed. During the war of 1812, the three forts on the island deterred a British invasion, giving Governors Island a high level of significance and reliability.
During the American Civil War, the island was not used for physical defense of the harbor, but it was used as barracks for soldiers and as a recruitment depot. Additionally, two of the three forts on the island, Fort Jay and Castle Williams, were used as prisoner-of-war holding facilities for Confederate prisoners.
In the late 19th century, the Army built six new general houses on the island, which is now known as Colonels Row. After this construction, Governors Island was transformed into an army headquarters and garrison.
Governors Island in the 20th Century
Work on Governors Island during the beginning of the 20th century was dedicated to increasing the size of the island to 172 acres. Soon after, World War I began, and the troops on Governors Island seized all German-owned ships in the Hudson River.
Troops on Governors Island protected the island and supply depot between New York City and Washington D.C. for the rest of the war. After World War I, the U.S. Army on Governors Island began to hold city parades, Army camps, and polo matches open to the public to form a bond with the citizens of New York City.
During World War II, the U.S. The First Army used Governors Island as their headquarters and originated their D-Day plans there. After the War, the U.S. Army continued to build barracks for soldiers and homes for military families until ownership was transferred to the United States Coast Guard in 1966 and stayed in Coast Guard Ownership until 1996.
For the rest of the century, Governors Island was home to historic events such as the relighting of the Statue of Liberty in 1988 and a United Nations meeting held on restoring democratic rule in Haiti in 1993.
Once neither the U.S. Army nor the Coast Guard was stationed on Governors Island, the island began to change shape. In 2001 President Bill Clinton named Fort Jay, Castle Williams, and the surrounding area as the Governors Island National Monument, run by the National Park Service.
The remainder of the island was sold to New York state as a means to use it for public benefit.
In 2007 there was a competition to redesign the island, incorporating parks and public space. Eighty-five acres of public open space and a new 2.2-mile promenade were constructed on the island, and ferries began to run from Brooklyn to the island.
In 2011 the National Park Service opened Castle Williams to the general public, and in 2014, 30 acres of parks opened, filled with trees, flowers, and gorgeous green spaces.
Current Attractions at Governors Island
Over half a million people visited Governors Island in 2015, and attendance has remained steady since. Over 70 arts and cultural organizations use Governors Island for programming in the 150,000 square feet of indoor space and 25 acres of outdoor space designated for this purpose.
The famous music festival Governors Ball had its opening season in 2011, adding yet another rich layer to the island’s history. What started as just a one-day festival grew into a three-day event that brings in a diverse set of artists every year.
The first festival featured names like Mac Miller and Empire in the Sun, and artists such as Guns N’ Roses and Kanye West were in attendance by the third year. Although recently the festival was moved off the island, Governors Ball is a beloved event every year in New York City and has inseparable ties to Governors Island.
What To Do on Governors Island
Besides music festivals, the island boasts many acres of carless scenery for biking, walking, picnicking, and more. It’s a peaceful oasis 7 minutes from one of the busiest cities in the world, and it was crucial to the city’s origins.
The next time you need a break from the hustle and bustle of city life, try one of these immersive activities on Governors Island to reconnect with the nature of New York State.
As mentioned previously, cars are not allowed on Governors Island. Instead, it is only accessible by ferry. There are over seven miles of car-free streets to explore via bike, including the 2.5-mile circumference of the island. As you bike around the island, you will be presented with stunning views of the rivers that frame the city, the Statue of Liberty, the old military forts, and the Manhattan skyline.
You can bring your own bike on the ferry, or you can rent a bike on the island. However, if stay with us at Collective Retreats — the only overnight accomodations available on the island — you will be given access to exclusive bike rentals that are arranged for you by our concierge.
Collective Retreats understands that many people come to Governors Island for a peaceful getaway from New York City’s overwhelming urban metropolis. That’s why our space is centered around a communicable Great Lawn that gives you space to breathe in the fresh air and have the space to spread out and relax as you soak in the views across the water.
There are many lawn games to choose from on the Great Lawn, including croquet and cornhole. Spend your afternoon playing games, laying in a hammock, opening a bottle of wine, and snacking on picnic lunches prepared by Collective Retreat’s culinary team.
Where To Stay on Governors Island
Not only does Collective Retreats offer access to wonderful activities that familiarize guests with Governors Island, but we also offer pristine accommodations for you to return to at night if you’re not quite ready to return to your city home.
Let your mind and body rest in our thoughtfully appointed accommodations that give you a true outdoor-indoor living experience. Our Summit Tent comes with heating and air conditioning to keep you comfortable as well as a full electric hookup for any devices you want to bring. Additionally, take advantage of your en suite bathroom with a rain shower, plush bathrobes,, and spa-quality products.
While the inside of your tent may feel like a five-star hotel, you will feel immersed in our Nation’s history as you look out at the Statue of Liberty and step out onto the private deck.
Lastly, you can count on a peaceful night of sleep as you lay your head back on our king-sized bed with 1,500 thread count sheets.
Wonders of Governors Island
While you probably have heard of Governors Island because of its carless space or the major music festival that originated there, the history goes well beyond the surface level.
A trip to Governors Island will give you the chance to immerse yourself further in the history of New York City and take advantage of the calm oasis just outside of Manhattan and Brooklyn. And be sure to extend your day trip to a restorative weekend getaway with Collective Retreats.